Free cooking classes help Wimauma residents shop, eat, live better

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When Edith Cervantes began taking cooking classes in Wimauma, the thought of eating tacos on lettuce leafs instead of on tortillas was inconceivable. But after one month of studying healthy cooking and eating techniques, Cervantes is slowly setting aside her preferred culinary habits imported from her hometown in Guerrero, Mexico -- habits in which oil and grease are abundant to fry the meat or chicken used for tacos. 

“I’m learning the importance of eating well in order to lower cholesterol and live healthier,” 55- year-old Cervantes says. “I’m learning little by little and I’m also teaching my four kids.”

Cervantes is part of a group of 12 women being instructed by the Hispanic Services Council (HSC) about culinary practices that improve nutrition by lowering obesity and diseases such as diabetes, which plague residents of Wimauma. 

The nutrition and cooking class is part of an initiative to improve the eating habits of families in Wimauma, says Rosy Bailey, interim director of the HSC’s Bridges to Health project.

According to a survey conducted by Bridges to Health and published in Voices of Wimauma in 2014, of a total of 54 residents surveyed, 16 percent reported suffering from chronic obesity and 13 percent from diabetes. 

The study, conducted with assistance from the University of South Florida (USF), concluded nutritional education was an imperative need in Wimauma. 

“The classes are part of the Taste It program, in which we expose participants to new foods and cooking methods, new grains and new vegetable combinations,” says Zulema Uscanga, administrator of the HSC program. 

Taste It takes place alongside Beth-El’s weekly pantry food distribution to the needy on Tuesdays. 

“The day prior to the distribution of food we review the bag contents and we create and cook a recipe based on what will be distributed the following day,” Uscanga says. “We offer people a taste of the recipe we’ve prepared and provide them with a recipe, so that they may maximize the use of the ingredients provided to them in the food distribution.’’ 

Though Beth-El distributes food every Tuesday, Taste it comes to Wimauma only once a month. And though it’s only been in operation for the past two months, it’s already yielding notable results, Uscanga says. 

“The tools and knowledge we impart there, the women replicate at home and with that action alone, the impact to families is greater because the moms are doing the cooking and the families are eating healthier,” she adds. 

Creating generational change

Uscanga received a Master’s in Public Health with an emphasis on nutrition and consumer acculturation in Latino populations, specifically of Mexican origin. 

Jilue Johnson, 43, expresses her satisfaction with her new knowledge of cooking and nutrition. 
“I had no idea what to do with chickpeas. Now, I make my own hummus or chickpea paté,” she says. 

Nuria Leyva, 73, and of Cuban origin, says she is slowly adopting the new knowledge she’s gaining in the class.
“We don’t use this style of cooking in Cuba, but I’m adopting it. I don't fry foods as often and I use less oil. I’ve also added many vegetables into my diet and my three children are liking the change,” she says. 

Elba De Méndez, 80, of Venezuelan origin, and her daughter Shenay Mendez, 39, are also partaking in the culinary class. They were already familiar with many of the ingredients in the recipes, but not with the combinations of grains and vegetables created. 

“We share with them the importance of a balanced diet that includes proteins, carbohydrates, vegetables, grilled or steamed meat, and easy ways to prepare food,” says 52-year-old Velia Huitron, one of the health promoters and instructors of the cooking class. 

But the nutrition education provided doesn’t end with the cooking class and knowledge of a balanced diet. Participants also learn how to read labels and identify whether the levels of sodium and fat in the ingredients or foods are advisable. 

“We educate them on the importance of buying their portions of meat without an excess of fat and to verify the level of sodium when buying cold meats,” Huitron says. 

“We also teach them how to shop smart and on a low budget,” Uscanga says. 

As part of the project, the trainers go out to the supermarket with the 10-12 participants and show them how, with only $5, they can create a healthy menu for the family under the “Comprando Rico y Sano” program, which is part of the project on general nutrition. 

Bailey, who regularly teaches the cooking class, speaks of the challenges still facing the participants in spite of learning about nutrition, such as the limited shopping options in Wimauma. The places where one can buy healthy foods is very limited -- there is only one supermarket in town (Walmart) -- and fruits and vegetables are more expensive at convenience stores. 

Uscanga agrees and adds that once homemakers advance in their knowledge of nutrition and healthy cooking, they may have a difficult time implementing that knowledge in their kitchens because of a lack of personal transportation and limited public transportation to get to the supermarket. So they end up doing their shopping at the convenience store, where they may find it cheaper to buy fatty fast food and high-sugar sodas. 

In addition to these practical challenges, there is also the cultural aspect to consider as well as the behaviors and beliefs learned at home -- those habits built over time that are hard to change. 

“Therefore, here we give them real life scenarios, providing them with the ingredients, the consumable goods for cooking, we cook it in front of them, and they get to taste it. The moms know that what they’re going to be feeding their children is healthy and delicious,” Uscanga says. 

Leading by example

It’s very important for program participants to taste the food because it helps “remove the fear of spending money on something new because a family is not very likely to spend money on something they’ve never tried and don’t know if they’re going to like,” she adds. 

Thus, Reyna Barragán, 46, one of the health promoters with the program, does everything in her power to help the community in Wimauma overcome their fears and impediments to healthy eating practices. She has experienced living on both sides of the spectrum. 

“I used to weigh 180 pounds,” she says. “We had terrible eating habits at home. It was not until I myself became informed on health and nutrition that I came to understand the importance of eating well. Now, I weigh 140 pounds. I want my testimony to serve as an encouragement to others that (changing one’s lifestyle) is possible.” 

“In my house, there is no more pizza or soda. I exchanged them for healthy food portions of proteins, vegetables and fruits. I also reduced my household’s salt intake,” Barragán adds. 

She now sees it as her mission to also change the eating habits of her six children and six grandchildren, who also live in Wimauma. To this end, she takes her nutrition talks to Betune Park at 8:30 in the mornings.

“We have to make an effort to reduce the obesity index amongst our people,” she says. 

To read more stories from the 83 Degrees Media On The Ground storytelling project, follow these links for English and for Spanish.

The 83 Degrees Media On The Ground storytelling project is supported by Allegany Franciscan Ministries.

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Read more articles by Imelda Dutton.

Imelda Dutton, a native of the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, is a bilingual journalist with extensive expertise in Spanish communications. For more than two decades, she reported on Latin American issues for Mexican and American media, including El Universal de Mexico. She has also written for and edited Spanish and English publications, including Visión Latina, formerly a weekly publication of The Ledger and The New York Times, and Ágora, a bilingual quarterly military magazine published by U.S. Northern Command. For the past decade she has been a strategic communications consultant for international companies, such as Booz Allen Hamilton and Jacobs Technology; and in 2014, she founded CrossoverComm Inc., her own content development and communications agency. Dutton is currently the Tampa Bay area correspondent for El Sentinel newspaper and enjoys looking for ways to promote diversity and cultural awareness among Americans.